Restaurant review: We take a bite from Mourne Seafood Bar
34-36 Bank Street, Belfast BT1 1HL. Tel: 028 9024 8544
Mourne Seafood Bar's sublime fish and shellfish have been reeling customers in for years now, and it's still got me hooked.
There's a big emphasis on fish, the man announced to his partner at the table beside me as he read through the menu. I was alone. Listening to this guy for the next hour was going to be some craic. Had he not seen the sign over the door? I felt like warning him that chips are made from spuds, there are bubbles in the sparkling water and the metal thing with the pointy bits is a fork.
But that would have not gone down well. Particularly at these close quarters.
Belfast's Mourne Seafood Bar has all the intimacy of the best French bistros, and that includes a four-inch gap between the banquette tables.
This is nothing to complain about and for those of us eating alone, the ability to listen in to other people's conversations is a bonus feature. It's just not an ideal place to have a business lunch if you're a lawyer with a client up on fuel-smuggling charges, an accountant giving tax avoidance advice, or a developer pitching a proposal.
You come to the Mourne Seafood Bar for a good time, to leave business behind and to rub shoulders with tourists (and the occasional prat) from all over the world.
You come here because Andy Rea and Bob McCutcheon, who own the place, have worked hard with their neighbour, Kelly's Cellars, to make Bank Place, the formerly creepy and mildly threatening city-centre space, a more visitor-friendly and attractive spot.
And you come here for a chilled glass of Muscadet with a crab risotto that is like no other on the planet.
It's been years since the last review of MSB and the pressures on the successful duo of a new Dublin operation, as well as the Dundrum one, might have taken its toll on quality. So a review was timely.
However, the magic is clearly still there. In some dishes, the risotto for instance, it is still a sensation.
Crab has such a fine flavour it can easily be lost in a risotto that features chorizo, parmesan butter and gremolata. But it is positively dominant here.
The deep-sea flavours of the crab meat shine through loud and clear like the fresh smell of wet seaweed as the tide goes out. Even the MSB signature leaf-fall of shredded coriander can't extinguish the crab. It is a delight and one I wish would not end.
But, sadly, the plate is soon empty and replaced by the half lobster and chips, another MSB classic. Nobody does it better, although today it has spent a couple of minutes too long in the pot.
The lobster meat in the tail and claw has lost its form. But the flavours are still there and so is that coriander. I would still recommend this dish, but ask the server to hold the coriander. (Note to Andy: please can we have parsley instead?)
Mourne Seafood Bar continues to astonish. Its success must be down to its consistency. But it must surely also be down to that "emphasis on fish", as my neighbour has correctly noted.
The list of specials, for instance, runs to more than a dozen and that's on top of the regular menu. There is crispy whitebait with home-made mayo, Walter Ewing's smoked salmon served with grilled asparagus, crispy egg (how do they do that?) and hollandaise, spiced seafood pakora with mango salsa, coriander, lime and fennel salad. Scallops, monkfish, whole fish, fillets and hake fingers and even freshwater fish appear here.
One of the best half-dozen Pacific oysters you'll ever eat anywhere for under a tenner are the Strangford deep shells served here Japanese-style (or natural for those who prefer no interference). The Japanese-style features shredded cucumber, pickled ginger and spiced soy dressing and, unless you have an aversion to raw shellfish, you'd be nuts to go past these.
Mourne Seafood Bar has helped create Belfast's reputation as a foodies' city and has lost none of its early enthusiasm. It used to be a bit hysterical - tables were turned over a bit too quickly, diners were chased to make way for the next lot - but now it's just got better and calmer.
And if you happen to be taking someone out who doesn't like fish, there's always a rib-eye with chips. But, make no mistake: there's definitely an emphasis on fish in the Mourne Seafood Bar.
Crab and chorizo risotto £8.00
Half lobster and chips £12.00
Chocolate fondant £5.25
Glass Muscadet £5.00
Sparkling water £2.00